I miss Erv Janko's pie, but there was more to Sadie Thompson's than that.
Interested in fare beyond bacon and eggs? I have just the place for you. I wrote about it for the St. Louis Magazine blog Dining. A good spot for a little hair of the dog then, too.
There are some musicians whose recordings, no matter how good, how beloved, don’t do them justice. Chief among them, I would argue, is Billie Holiday. If I ever had any doubt of that, they were erased Friday night as Alexis J. Roston sang part of Holiday’s repertoire in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.
Holiday, for those not familiar with her story, was a jazz singer who worked from the mid to late Thirties until her deathin 1959. She succumbed at the age of 44 to the effects of drug and alcohol addiction. She sang with several of the big bands and then on her own, an outspoken woman facing the racial politics of society and particularly the music industry.
Lady Day, a nickname saxophonist Lester Young gave her, is based on a single show at a small club in Philadelphia. It is, essentially, a glorious cabaret act – and those who enjoy cabaret should have a swell time seeing this at the Kranzberg Arts Center. Between songs, Holiday talks about her life and why she, with 22 Carnegie Hall appearances, is working a miniscule venue in a city she doesn’t like.
Roston is absolutely alight with the Holiday character. Her voice is warm and she takes charge of the songs with great confidence, not just the ones everyone knows, like “God Bless the Child” but more obscure ones as well. Yes, “Strange Fruit,” which is about a lynching, is included. It’s a bravura performance, not only with the music but with the acting as well. Because this takes place about four months before Holiday’s death in a Harlem hospital, she’s well into the throes of her decline, which we see over the course of the evening. It was a painful life that music lit up for her, so the contrast is a great one.
This is not a one-woman show, it’s a joint effort and foremost among the other contributors is Abdul Hamid Royal, who plays Jimmy Powers, her music director. He doubles in strings, so to speak, as the conductor and show’s music director. Kaleb Kirby is on drums and Benjamin Wheeler plays bass, all fun, but there’s lots of delight from watching Powers’ reaction to his employer and hearing Royal’s keyboard work.
It’s been argued that this script tries to cram too many biographical details in. But for anyone not very familiar with Holiday’s story, and these days, that’s most people, it gives another dimension to the story.
Leda Hoffman directs the show for Max & Louie Productions. Patrick Huber’s lighting contributes a great deal, while remaining subtle enough to be almost organic. Roston’s dress and elbow-length mitts are the showpiece here from Dorothy Jones’ costume design. First rate work, all around, and an enjoyable 95 minutes or so. No intermission, so time for a late dinner afterward to discuss one’s awe at the performances.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
through March 4
The Kranzberg Arts Center
501 N. Grand Blvd.
Max & Louie Productions
The food world seems to be catching on to how good we have it here. Schlafly's Stout and Oyster Fest has made a world best-of list. Read about it here in St. Louis Magazine's blog Dining. And the music sounds like it'll be great.
This year's there's a sort of VIP pass. To me, having all the oysters I wanted might be worth the price.
Pump Boys and Dinettes would seem to be about as far as you can get from intellectual theatre. It’s a show with little dialogue and a lot of music about a gas station (they’d say “filling station”) and a diner that calls itself a cafe somewhere in rural North Carolina.
But listen to those lyrics. They’re imaginative and funny. The music, which wiggles back and forth between rock and country, ranges from satisfactory to downright delightful. One of the songs, “The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine”, actually was on the country-western music charts for a while. That should give some idea of the rollicking going on at the Playhouse @ Westport Plaza.
The six-person cast works hard in this relatively short show. All but one sing, all six play multiple instruments, including whisks, wooden spoons and graters. Chet Wollan is Jim, the primary narrator, a good old boy. The other station owner, L.M, played by Brandon Fillette, sings the Dolly Parton song and plays keyboards, including a small accordion.
The tousle-haired cutie Steven Romero Schaeffer works on guitar and drums and takes full advantage of his looks as Jackson, the youngest of the four employees. And then there’s Ed Avila playing Eddie, on all sorts of strings. He never says (or sings) a word, and resembles one of the security guys on some show like Maury Povich, sunglasses, cap and crossed arms. Despite his menacing appearance, he manages to endear himself to the audience anyway.
Rhetta Cupp, the older of the two waitresses, is Jessica Bradley, a little jaded but a fine hand with baking pies and doing kitchen-based percussion. Her sister Prudie Cupp, played by Candice Lively, has a swell time flirting with the shy L.M. and cutting a rug. Their diner is called the Double Cupp Cafe.
Everyone sings well, especially a belting number from Bradley, and the versatility of the group is a major contributor to the fun. The Playhouse is a small venue, so it’s easy to get a good view of the action and the amusing set, at least from most seats. But the playhouse ought to be serving pie at their bar.
Pump Boys and Dinettes
through February 19
Playhouse at Westport
635 Westport Plaza
St. Louis Actors’ Studio has had a relationship with playwright-screenwriter Neil LaBute for several years. They just finished a second year of taking their annual Neil LaBute New Theater Festival to New York for a four-week run. Each of those festivals included a brand-new LaBute short play. Now SLAS has opened Labute’s The Way We Get By, a relatively new (2015) short play from him.
It’s about a man and a woman who had to much to drink and ended up in bed together. Anyone who’s experienced more than a couple of LaBute plays knows he doesn’t create polite drawing-room comedies, so it’s probably better to go no further into the plot. LaBute’s folks are also pretty consistently, uh, quirky, so one of the questions the audience might be asking not long into the play is who’s the crazier, him or her?
The man, Doug, is Andrew Rea, reasonably young, reasonably attractive, but more than passing strange, we soon discover. Sophia Brown plays Beth, the tousle-headed woman about the same age. Were they strangers? Why is he hanging around even though...oh, never mind. That’s only the beginning of a long string of questions that need answering.
The acting is more than merely fine, on both Rea and Brown’s parts. The problem here is the script. It’s not up to LaBute’s usual standards, stretching things out far too long. In this 90-minute work, it’s half an hour in before there’s even a half-serious hint about what might be going on. It’s an intellectual strip tease that goes on. And on. And on.
Nancy Bell does her best to keep things moving, with a lot of physical choreography between Rea and Brown. Patrick Huber’s carefully created set plays a role in things, looking like just what a woman of about that age would create. Carla Landis Evans did the costumes – what there are of them, under the circumstances.
Nope. Not LaBute’s best use of his time.
The Way We Get By
through February 26
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
360 N. Boyle
To Kill a Mockingbird has quietly become a universal American experience. Whether it’s read in school or viewed as a classic film, almost all of us have known – and in many ways, that word doesn’t need quotation marks around it – Atticus Finch, Scout and Jem, and their buddy Dill.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis opened the stage adaptation of it as part of their 50th anniversary season. It was particularly appropriate, as artistic director Steven Woolf pointed out, in the aftermath of the area’s racial upheaval and its shock waves. Director Risa Brainin has given us a vision of Maycomb, Alabama, that’s more dreamlike and less gritty than some. Nevertheless, the power is unmistakable.
The strong cast is headed up by Jonathan Gillard Daly’s Atticus Finch, attorney and father. Daly mixes warmth and strength in the iconic character. His daughter Jean Louise is played by Lenne Klingaman as the adult, who narrates the story. Her younger self, answering to the nickname Scout, is Kaylee Ryan. Her brother Jem is Kaylee Ryan’s twin brother Ronan Ryan, and their summer sidekick Dill (who in real life was the young Truman Capote) is Charlie Mathis.
These kids are the core of the play, and they carry it well. Kaylee, in particular, gives a spectacular performance, feisty and curious and forthright. Ronan Ryan shows a strong older brother, and Charlie Mathis’ Dill has some great dialogue that he carries off with delightful poise. On opening night, there was a little swallowing of lines from both the young gentlemen, but that disappeared as the evening progressed.
It’s a big cast, with a number of familiar local faces. Pay particular attention to Rachel Fenton as Mayella Ewell, who’s the accuser of Atticus’ client, Tom Robinson. What she reveals when she’s not speaking is almost as interesting as her lines. Kudos also to Tanesha Gary, the Finches’ housekeeper Calpurnia, a strong figure in this motherless home.
Director Brainin has added another level of interest with original choral music from Michael Keck, who also plays Reverend Sykes. Mostly, the music is a positive addition, but at times it seemed hard to tell how much of a focus the music was intended to be. Its style is modern with numerous homages to traditional gospel, and the community – that’s the phrase the program uses for the chorus, who also serves as the observers from the balcony in the courthouse, when “coloreds” had to be seated in separate areas from white persons – sounds lovely.
That brings us to the set from Narelle Sissons. It’s imaginative – one character, who’s a housebound invalid, arrives with her own window, for instance – and adds to the feeling of memory rather than reproduction. The courthouse balcony is pretty remarkable. Then there’s the tree. The tree dominates the set and seems one of those love-it-or-hate-it pieces. It looked to me like a tree that’s been hacked on for decades, with the resulting odd branches, reminding of the small-town street where I grew up.
I find myself again and again wanting to use the word “strong” when I think about what the Rep is doing with Mockingbird. It’s moving, extremely well executed, and a perfect fit for almost any audience.
To Kill a Mockingbird
through March 5
Repertory Theatre St. Louis
Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts
130 Edgar Rd., Webster Groves
A special dish for Valentine's Day? Pink? Luxurious? Tasty? We got this.
There’s something about restaurants in Soulard that feels echt St. Louis to me. I’m sure it’s because I’ve been going to them since the Hoover Administration, but there’s a coziness that helps balance their chill and/or drafts this time of the year. The brick walls and tin ceilings, the darkness of the deeper ends of the interior, all contribute to the atmosphere, and Epic Pizza & Subs fits right into the tradition. Giant blow-ups of old Cardinals photos, drawings of Soulard buildings and an immense antique beer ad cover the walls.
They’ve got a wood-burning pizza oven that’s so well insulated that it doesn’t warm anything but the prep area, which is in plain view – we will admit it was a tad chilly on one visit. But what comes out of the oven is exceptional enough that it’s worth donning an extra sweater and perhaps a scarf on truly Arctic days, not that we’ve had many of those so far.
Two of the three starters/sides turned out to be winners. Wings are roasted in the oven, leaving them crisp, still moist, and ready for a run through their sauce. The hot variation (there’s a medium also) was just right, not incendiary, and not wetting things down so much the crispness was lessened.
Do not under any circumstances miss the garlic knots; these guys are remarkable. Nothing reheated about them, they’re cooked to order, tossed in garlic butter and then in seasonings, cheese, just a little rosemary and some salt. So addictive, they could be a Schedule III narcotic. Alas, the Caesar salad, while crisp, wore an unimpressively bland dressing, and the croutons were hard and unwilling to fraternize with the dressing.
Epic’s pizza is New York-ish, in 14” or 16” sizes, cut in large wedges. Furthermore, it’s available by the slice, the better, I daresay, to tote next door to the International Tap House, where they encourage food from outside. It’s an excellent crust, the thickness perfect, even the edges tender-chewy and flavorful. The basic margherita with its tomato sauce, fresh basil and fresh mozzarella was a reminder of just how tasty simple things can be. Very tomato-ey, with pieces of fresh tomato here and there atop the sauce, the basil dancing right along with the tomato’s slightly acid notes, and the mozzarella to add some creaminess, it was a very fine pie indeed. My pals tried a couple of the white pizze, a chicken pesto using mozzarella, parmesan and feta cheeses, white meat of chicken and the pesto not running roughshod over everything else, which that sauce is capable of doing in the wrong hands. Clearly this is a spot that understands basil. They also keep rosemary in good control, as evidenced not only by the garlic knots but by a slice of Bradley pizza. The Bradley uses Parmigiano Reggiano (the only item on the menu claiming that specific cheese), a little red onion, a dab of rosemary here and there, and the singular addition of pistachios, adding crunch as well as flavor.
The subs deserve some attention as well. They make their cheesesteak with pork as well as beef, which does good things for moisture levels, and both mozzarella and provolone cheese. The menu talks about the EPIC sauce. I couldn’t quite make out what that was, but overall, it was a first-rate take on the dish, pleasantly messy to eat. For some of us, a judicious use of the Cholula hot sauce on the tables enhances the experience even more.
Order at the counter and pleasant employees bring food to the table. Yes, beer and wine are available, especially since liquor laws don’t allow takeout orders from ITAP next door.
Epic Pizza & Subs
1711A S. 9th St.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Poor
Screwball comedies from Hollywood were at their height during the Great Depression. Laughter and escape seemed worth spending a hard-earned dime on. (Especially on dish night, where attendees also got a piece of dinnerware.) Perhaps that’s why our appetite for laughter seems bigger lately.
Satisfy that appetite – at least briefly – with a few hours with Something Rotten!at the Fox. The show really shouldn’t work – it’s a first effort from two brothers who had different careers, one a songwriter and the other a screenwriter for Disney, it pokes nasty at Shakespeare, and there’s plenty of mash-up in it. But the show is so deeply We-Love-Theater (another potential danger point) that the mash-up becomes homage with tongue inserted, nay, sutured, into cheek.
It’s that tongue-in-cheek that saves the show and allows the audience to cut loose about it. Two brothers are struggling to write plays while old acquaintance Will Shakespeare (Adam Pascal) has become an obnoxious superstar. The younger brother, Nigel (Josh Grisetti), is the writer, the older one, Nick (Rob McClure), more of a producer and idea guy, and it’s he who’s looking for something new. Nick’s wife, Bea (Maggie Lakis) is so desperate she wants to get a job, but he won’t have it. Instead, he seeks out a soothsayer called Nostradamus (Blake Hammond) – no, not the famous one, but his nephew – hoping he’ll predict what Shakespeare will do next, so that they can beat him to it.
The result is not only a play about breakfast, called Omelette, but the first insertion of music and dance into a play. The musical is born! Their financial backer thinks they’re mad, and heads for Shakespeare with his pounds. They accept the money instead from Shylock (Jeff Brooks), a Jewish moneylender who wants somehow to be in show business.
Nigel is at heart a poet and still composes them, meeting the beautiful Portia (Autumn Hurlbert), whose father (Scott Cote) is a Puritan, albeit one with a lovely lace collar. Arts like the theatre and poetry are, per him, a tool of the devil. That augurs poorly for young love.
Can the brothers combine eggs and Danish for the play? Why is Will sniffing around their work? Will Bea get a job? Will the Puritan change the course of true love? And, most importantly, whoever heard of singing and dancing in a play?
The story is almost beside the point here except in contributing an excuse for creating dialogue with shards of Shakespeare and lyrics with lines from musical comedies going back to the Twenties – although most of them are much more modern, like explaining that “miserable” is pronounced “miz-er-AH-bl”. Frequent theater-goers will catch a couple of bars of familiar music here and there, but not more. Some of the salutes are visual, with sailor hats that harken back to shows like South Pacific, for instance.
Much of it is very well done, although on opening night, much of the first number called “Welcome to the Renaissance” suffered from undermiking the soloist, whose voice was lost in the orchestra’s sound. It got better with “God, I Hate Shakespeare” and went on from there. Good voices all around, including a delicious a capella verse of “To Thine Own Self Be True” in the second act.
Both McClure and Grisetti are utterly delicious, funny and charming. Lakis’ role is physically challenging, but she conquers all. Ingenue Hurlbert is wonderfully winsome. Both Hammond’s Nostradamus and Brooks’ Shylock delight the audience. As to Pascal playing Shakespeare – well, this is a different Bard than you thought you knew, but chewing on scenery in this show is all in character.
It’s certainly a visually beautiful show, starting with the costume design from Gregg Barnes – it is, to call attention to one detail among many, a remarkable codpiece that Shakespeare wears, drawing attention away even from his collar, which resembles something from Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Casey Nicholaw both directed and choreographed the show. While this isn’t a dance show the way An American in Paris was, the dual roles for Nicholaw show how important the dancing is. It’s a great part of the fun.
A delightful evening, a good time, and something that both Shakespeare and musical theatre buffs can enjoy along with their drama-neutral friends and family.
through February 19
527 N. Grand
It’s been decades, I think, since St. Louis had a new style of Chinese cuisine, when Yen Ching brought us Hunan-style food, our first non-Cantonese experience. China, of course, is immense, and more multi-ethnic than most of us tend to realize. (I’m guilty, too.) Now we have a restaurant bringing us Dongbei-style food, something I only heard of a couple of years ago when I visited a fellow foodist in Queens, New York.
The area is in Northern China, home of cold winters, more wheat than rice, and some fermented foods like cabbage. If this sounds faintly familiar, I can tell you the food fits right into our climate. It’s not quite yeast rolls and sauerkraut, but the discerning eater can find similarities. The non-discerning will simply find good stuff to eat.
Cate Zone Chinese Cafe is small, modest in price, and tastefully decorated. It’s on the south side of the Olive Boulevard strip that’s home to many Asian businesses. The menu is fairly short for a St. Louis Chinese restaurant, and is in the process of being revised. Several things that are on it are no longer offered, including, unfortunately, the lamb ribs, a version of which I’d had in New York and swooned over. Too hard to get lamb ribs here, say the guys who own the place.
This time of year is a good excuse to go for soup, and the offerings here are hearty ones, none of your chicken-broth-with-a-few-vegetables sort of stuff. Sour cabbage with pork belly is a soup, although the menu doesn’t use that word, the sour cabbage being very traditional. This isn’t sauerkraut, but less acidic, more finely shredded, almost citrus-y to go with the robust flavor of the pork belly – which was, by the way, pretty lean for the cut of pork from which bacon is made – and chunks of potato, which are easier to grow in northern China than rice. It’s thick, and about as hearty as you’d expect from pork and cabbage. Only slightly lighter is the chicken and mushroom soup, thick with noodles and very mushroomy.
“Clear noodle with sesame sauce” is not the sesame noodles found on many Chinese menus, the small noodles with a sauce that is the color and almost the consistency of peanut butter. It’s a nicely arranged salad-ish dish where the julienned cucumber, carrots, cabbage, mushrooms, a little pork and a shower of cilantro wait for the diner to pour over the sesame sauce and mix it all together. The serving is generous and the results are so good it’s hard share without begrudging one’s fellow diners. But resist that urge, there’s more. (Dongbei servings are always large; that, too, fits right in our local tradition.)
The sizzling plate in the title of tofu on sizzling plate was, indeed crackling and spitting merrily when it arrived. A brown sauce, slightly sweet and laced with ginger, was nubbly with bits of ground chicken, plus carrots, peas and green onions. The fingers of tofu had been lightly battered and quickly fried, the better to hold the sauce and give a little more texture.
That same batter, so light one wonders about rice flour, surrounds curling finger-sized piece of fish in the simply named hot crisp fish. It’s double hot, not just in serving temperature, but in spicing as well. A couple of handfuls of dried hot peppers are sliced and cooked in the oil with the fish, so that even if one doesn’t eat the peppers, some residual flesh, and thus capsaicin, which is what makes chili peppers hot, is on the breading. It’s pretty sharp, a slow-growing heat that abates some, and returns more vigorously with each succeeding piece of fish. Hot food lovers should be blissful.
Twice-cooked pork uses thin slices of nice lean pork tenderloin, also battered and deep-fried before being swathed in a fruity, acidic sauce, tasting of pineapple and more. It is, of course, a take on sweet and sour pork, but this is remarkably better, not just in its freshness and handsome appearance but in the ratio of sauce to meat and tenderness of the meat.
On our first visit, a dish topped by what appeared to be a cloud went by. “What’s that?” we asked. “Sweet potato,” explained the server. “Next time,” we promised, and so we did. Listed as honey crisp sweet potato, it would convert the most reluctant. The cloud was spun sugar, the technique of taking sugar melted to a liquid and then stretching it out. As it cools, the thread hardens. The same sugar had been used to coat chunks of sweet potato on the plate and the cloud of threads that topped it. Untidy to eat, yes, but very rewarding, perhaps even irresistible. This isn’t, by the way, some tourist bait; spun sugar has been in Chinese kitchens since the Ming Dynasty, often using the syrup to make confectionery animals for children for holidays.
It’s a small place, diners are often waiting for a table, which gives them time to admire the subway-tile décor and the New York City signs creating the black and white décor. Service is pleasant and accommodating. There’s a sort of buffet on one wall, for a do-it-yourself run with the ma la soup, something I haven’t tried yet. Ma la is spicy, so be prepared if you are interested.
I could happily work my way through the whole menu based on what I’ve tasted so far.
Cate Zone Chinese Cafe
8148 Olive Blvd., University City
Lunch and Dinner Tues.-Sat.
Credit cards: Yes
What becomes a legend most? Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House certainly is that. Its portrayal of a docile wife turned rebellious was scandalous when it opened in 1879, and remained so for many years. In 2006, the centennial of Ibsen’s birth, it was the most-performed play in the world. How has it aged?
Stray Dog Theatre brings it to us again, in an adaptation by Frank McGuinness, giving us Nicole Angeli as Nora and Ben Ritchie as Torwald, her husband. When we first see her, she’s carrying lots of parcels, Christmas presents for the next day. She’s thrilled that Torvald is giving up his law practice to become a bank manager, which means a substantial increase in income. According to Torvald, Nora really likes to spend money, chiding her affectionately using lots of pet names involving birds or small animals. She even asks for cash for her Christmas present, but he declines.
It all looks cozy until her childhood friend Kristine (Rachel Hanks) arrives – they haven’t seen each other in years, so there’s a lot of catching up to do. Kristine married for money to support her sick mother and two younger brothers. Now she’s a widow, left kroner-less, and is hoping Nora’s husband will give her a job. It’s been a struggle, she admits. Nora, in her comfortable domesticity, feels challenged by this and reveals that she hasn’t had it so easy, either – she had to borrow money and hide the borrowing from her husband. Pretty shocking in that day and time, especially since she had to have a male relative co-sign for her.
Enter Nils Krogstad (Stephen Peirick), who’s overcome his shady past to have a job at the bank Torvald is about to run and where Kristine wants to work. Yes, Torvald will hire Kristine. In fact, there’s about to be an opening. Why? Krogstad is getting the boot. He’s Kristine’s old flame – but why is Nora so agitated in his presence? She’s much calmer around Torvald’s old friend, Dr. Rank (John N. Reidy).
Pentagons are so much more interesting than triangles, don’t you think?
To the modern eye, both the main characters are deeply flawed, although Ritchie’s Torvald is warmer and more affectionate than many portrayals, at least when he’s regarding his wife as an ornament of his household. But he’s still a man of steely moral values, seeing nothing but black or white in the human character, intolerant of any discoloration. Nora is what my mother would have termed a silly woman, superficial, worried about appearance, possessions, and little beyond the walls of their home. Her insistence that the money was borrowed to save Torvald’s life is so dramatic and frequent that one gets the impression he wasn’t all that sick. Perhaps she just wanted a long holiday in Italy on the pretext of his recovering from overwork?
The play has begun to sound strange to the modern ear. Torvald pontificates in a monologue with lines like “When a man forgives his wife, he loves her all the more, because it reminds him she’s totally dependent on him.” That monologue caused giggles in the audience – not the fault of the actors nor the director, but because that sort of thing is becoming unthinkable in all but the most dysfunctional of situations.
That said, Richie does a find job with Torvald, warming and freezing rapidly to his wife’s situations. Angeli gives us a good performance of a superficial woman, but it’s difficult when Nora relatively suddenly decides to stand up for herself and explain why she’s had enough. It seems impulsive rather than well thought out, fllimsier than the move of a woman who sees the possibility of a new life that comes at a high cost. Rachel Hanks does a good job as Kristine, subtle as she’s pulled in several directions by her situation. Peirick is perhaps the most Nordic in his restraint, and John N. Reidy’s physician carries a surprising amount of weight on his shoulders with dignity and charm.
The elegant, slightly spare set from Robert J. Lippert reminds us of the aviary names Torvald uses, and Eileen Engel’s costumes for the women in the play are almost lush, the men drabber, indeed, dour. Gary Bell’s directions keeps things moving well, and despite the three-act length, things don’t drag.
The play can be viewed a number of ways, but it’s well-executed; the rest is up to you, the audience.
A Doll’s House
through February 18
Stray Dog Theatre
Tower Grove Abbey
Going from the civilized melting pot of Singapore to Siem Reap, Cambodia, was something of a culture shock. It’s easy for Americans to forget that the fighting there raged on even after the US left Vietnam, and didn’t end until 1991. It’s still a very poor country, so the ride in to Siem Reap from its large airport rolled by cattle roaming, five goats grazing at the roadside and various types of poultry wandering on the outskirts of the city of around 110,000.
I didn’t come to Siem Reap for the food. I came to see Angkor Wat. It seemed a shame to be in that part of the world and not drop by, you know? However, I spent as much or more more time prowling the markets than prowling the temples. Yes, temples plural; there are quite a number of them in easy distance. And I’m glad I did. I learned a lot, ate some very good food, and met some great people. No downside there.
There is food at Angkor Wat, a long line of tents, but I passed on that. At Bayon temple, the one with the huge faces, I found a banquet being served, in the carvings of what’s clearly a kitchen in full feast mode.
The foodstuffs produced by the country are intriguing. Visitors will find lots of curries that are closer in style to the Thai than the Indian, utilizing lots of coconut but seldom very hot-spicy.
One of the best things I did was an evening with Siem Reap Food tours. Glaswegian Steven Halcrow picks folks up in a tuk-tuk, one of the motorbike-carriage vehicles ubiquitous in Siem Reap, and off five of us, plus Steve, went.
It was a great learning experience, including a small restaurant that is next to the garden where much of its food is grown.
We ended up at the night market, where we sat on the platforms to eat the kebabs and other things he purchased from the stalls.
Siem Reap Food Tours
Two restaurants, each very different, stood out. Cuisine Wat Damnak is owned and run by Joannes Riviere, a French chef, and his wife, Carol Salmon. He uses local ingredients to create tasting menus, 5 courses for $24 or 6 courses for $28. (Please note that the US dollar is the unofficial currency in Cambodia. Even the ATMs give dollars. You may get small change in Cambodian riel, though.)
The food is fabulous. Riviere makes his own creations, combining French technique, local Khmer traditions and ingredients with his own imagination. Mekong River shellfish and black sticky ride porridge with mushrooms and glazed turnip? Right here. And take a look at this dessert, a jack fruit cookie with meringue sweetened with palm sugar and pandan whipped cream.
Three of us (Hi, Zakia! Hi, Kathryn!) debauched our way through the two alternative tasting menus with wine and cocktails. Advance reservations are pretty much a necessity and can be made through their website. It’s in a roomy rehabbed home, and while we were in the un-air conditioned part, it was quite comfortable. And, no, no problems with flying insects at all – in fact, I saw or felt few of them the entire trip.
The other restaurant is Marum, a lovely place on a side street that is run by an organization helping street children. One of their projects is training young people for the hospitality industry. English may be a little slow here, but everything else is shining.
There was a killer pineapple-mango frozen daiquiri to start out with, a proper antidote to tropical travel, and a prawn and pork curry that was meant to be served as a dip but was good enough to eat with a spoon.The high point of the meal, however, was a one-layer chocolate cake, moist and slightly brownie-ish, that was made with the local Kampot pepper and served with a sauce of passion fruit and green Kampot peppercorns, an unforgettable combination.
Lunch and Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
And on a totally not-food topic, a few notes on shopping. The Old Market downtown is better than the Central Market, although the Central Market is less overwhelming. Visitors are beset on all sides by greetings of “Madame, madame!” by vendors, but no one’s feelings seem to be hurt by ignoring them, hard as it is to do at first. The Old Market is for both food and non-food things, so you can buy vegetables, a pot to cook them in, and silk scarves for gifts to take home.
In a totally different vein is a nearby shopping street called Hup Guan. Lovely little old buildings and some more sophisticated wares.I particularly loved a place called Trunkh http://www.trunkh.com/, with home accessories, jewelry and some clothing. It’s run by a Californian (and his cat Pepper), and has lots of distinctive items. I ended up with a large denim tote bag with a zippered pocket and an impressionistic design of the shutters so common here.
When I came home, I thought I was Asia-ed out. Now with a few weeks to catch my breath, I want to see (and taste) more of Cambodia.
It’s pretty close to free-form theater at the current production from Upstream Theater. Joanna Evans’ The Year of the Bicycle shows some good stuff and some not-so-good stuff. This is the play’s American premiere from the South African author, who’s currently completing her MFA at New York University.
Amelia (Megan Wiles), who’s white, and Andile (Eric J. Conners), who’s black, live in South Africa. It’s not clear exactly what their situation is when we first meet them. But eventually we find them as 8-year-olds meeting over a soccer ball. The times in these portions, but not others, of the show are pretty clearly defined. Events occur months and years apart, with some sliding around, timewise.
Wiles and Conners are excellent 8-year-olds, romping and pouting with exuberance. They work on a wonderful set by Michael Heil, very imaginative, which uses Tony Anselmo’s lights to best advantage. The soundscape, which is to say music, musical effects and other sounds, comes from David A.N. Jackson, and it’s nothing short of fascinating. Phillip Boehm’s direction makes the most of all this.
The thread is the relationship or lack thereof between the two. But the script is remarkably fuzzy, even for this type of theater, and figuring out what’s going on is anywhere from tricky to impossible. The program gives some help, and so does their press release. But performances of a play generally ought to stand on their own. The average theater-goer, especially one who doesn’t walk in and thoroughly read the program, is left adrift here, and with plenty of questions. Or perhaps a puzzled expression and thinking about the nearest place to get a drink.
The Year of the Bicycle
through February 12
Kranzberg Arts Center
501 N. Grand
There’s a certain irony to the timeliness of Mustard Seed’s opening of Yasmina’s Necklace. The play deals with refugees from Iraq who arrived via Syria and the way they adapt to life in the United States. To see it hours after the news that immigration from both those countries as well as five others was being banned put things into a whole different focus.
Yasmina brings us a Muslim family living in Chicago, father Ali (Chuck Winning), Sara (Maritza Motta Gonzalez) and their grown son Sam (Adam Flores). The initial argument is the parents’ horror that the son has changed his first name to Sam in order to reduce workplace discrimination, but we soon learn that the son is recently divorced from his non-Muslim wife, yet another blow to the honor of the family. Mom wasn’t raised in the Islamic faith, she’s Puerto Rican, and converted after she met her college roommate, who was Muslim, and she became interested. But family honor is a concept that transcends ethnic boundaries, and the gnashing of teeth is loud indeed in both parents. Sam is still reeling from the divorce but his parents insist he meet a girl they, and their imam, think would be appropriate. He finally gives accedes and trudges off with them.
Yasmina (Parvuna Sulaiman) is in her 30’s, an artist who works in a grocery store supporting her widowed father Musa (Amro Salama). He’s a dentist, but cannot practice here because of licensure requirements. They’re fairly recent immigrants, far less prosperous than Ali and his family. Yasmina is strong in her national identity and is trying to create a charitable group to work with new immigrants of all persuasions to make the transition easier, something like St. Louis’ International Institute, but in its very early stages. Yasmina, like Sam, is very uninterested in a match. The last years in Iraq and the ones in Syria, where they fled, were pretty awful and she just wants to paint and help other people. But, also like Sam, filial duty makes her agree to meet him and his family, arriving for a visit that is essentially an audition.
After a few tense minutes of the visit, the imam, (Jaime Zayas) arrives as well, and he moves the parents out of the living room to give the young ones a little privacy, although Sam’s mom worries about them being unchaperoned. Sparks fly between the couple, although they’re not the good kind.
But it turns out there’s a reason for him to see her again, and the charity project becomes something they can work on together.
Somehow in this work from playwright Rohina Malik and director Deanna Jent, everything rises above the cliches of boy-meets-girl, mainly because of Yasmina’s backstory, including memory sequences with Amir (Ethan Joel Isaac), her childhood friend. In many ways, the family dynamics are as interesting as the main story line here.
Sulaiman and Flores work well together, both of them carefully restrained with each other. When facing off with their respective elders, things get louder, particularly when Motta Gonzalez and Winning lay siege. Salama, playing the refugee dentist, is enjoyable, as well, a man who understands a well-placed pleading is frequently more effective than raising one’s voice.
An intriguing set from Kyra Bishop with work from Emily Kay Rice and Jim Moxley, lights from Michael Sullivan and costumes, both humble and elegant, from Jane Sullivan, all add to the feel of the production.
Another good look into an experience far from most St. Louisans.
through February 12
Mustard Seed Theatre
6800 Wydown Blvd
Plan on a little extra time to get to Little Thing, Big Thing, the current offering from The Midnight Company. It’s in a film studio near Jefferson and I-64, rather off the beaten path. This sort of thing drives some people crazy. Me, I like it. There’s a certain Insider feel to locations like this, and if you’ve never been in such a place before, it’s pretty interesting. Note, for example, how sound changes when you walk from the hallway into the actual studio, the result of serious insulation so things being filmed don’t have intrusions from, say, sirens.
The Midnight Company often works at such venues. It’s part of their overall style, and so is Little Thing, Big Thing. From the Irish author Donal O’Kelley, it’s a two-person show. Joe Hanrahan and Rachel Tibbetts play several characters.
Mainly, though, they’re Larry, recently out on parole, and Sister Martha, just back to Ireland from Nigeria to handle the sale of an old convent. The play is an eccentric caper story, with a script that has the characters mostly doing their own sound effects. That takes a little getting used to on the part of the audience, but it’s rather fun seeing them casually announce “Cattle grate!”, simultaneously bouncing three or four times as they drive along, for instance.
One of Sister Martha’s students asked her to deliver a film cartridge to someone in Dublin while she’s there – the student’s dying father, owner of the film, made the request. Larry’s purloining a statue of the Virgin from the convent. But the meet cute is interrupted by someone loudly demanding Martha give HIM the film instead, and the chase is on. Did I mention Nigerian oil and a fair amount of corruption? Did I need to?
Tibbetts’ unflappable Sister Martha is very smooth, and fairly unshocked by her new associate’s remarkably filthy mouth. Perhaps it’s the circumstances. Hanrahan’s abilities are perfect for Larry, scrambling and cursing and arguing. And, oh, yes, exhibiting his gluteii maximi to the sister. Those secondary characters are generally easy to identify despite only a few costume adjustments, like a blissful appearance by Hanrahan as a leprechaun. JC Kraijcek is responsible for the costumes.
Live music from Jason Scroggins and Will Bonfiglio adds to things. Dialogue is occasionally blurry, between accents, music, and speaking very quickly, but it’s not unmanageable. Some wonderful video and lighting adds a lot, courtesy of Michael Perkins.
Ellie Schwetye directs this interesting little piece, which runs about 90 minutes without an intermission.
Little Thing, Big Thing
through February 11
The Midnight Company
2675 Scott Avenue
Layer upon layer of the ingredients that make remarkable theater are on display at the New Jewish Theatre’s Intimate Apparel, which runs through February 12. Lynn Nottage’s concept and subsequent script, the acting, set, lighting and costumes all contribute to make the experience.
Nottage began thinking about the play when she found a photograph of her great grandmother, a seamstress in Brooklyn who’d married a Barbadian immigrant. And that’s the core of the story here, the seamstress specializing in beautiful underthings weaving a tale of intimacy, where it happens and how it happens, in not just its physical sense but in the emotions as well.
Jacqueline Thompson is Esther, the seamstress living in a rooming house in New York just after the turn of the last century. She may be illiterate but she’s talented with her fingers, as she says, a rather reserved woman turning 35 very conscious of her unmarried state. She’s not doing piece work as a subcontractor, but has private clients. She buys particularly lovely fabric from a merchant named Mr. Marks, Jim Butz.
Someone from her church has gone off to work on the Panama Canal and suggests to a fellow worker that he might want to correspond with Esther – and so we meet George, played by Chauncy Thomas. Esther’s landlady, Linda Kennedy, elegant and a bit of both mother hen and busybody, scoffs at this, but two of Esther’s clients, a white society matron, Julie Layton, and a high-toned prostitute, Andrea Purnell, help with writing her replies to George. Months later he comes to New York, Esther having agreed to marry him, sight unseen.
There’s a great deal of fine work from all the actors. It’s a bravura performance of Esther’s restraint from Jacqueline Thompson, certainly, and Chauncy Thomas’ George is gloriously just the opposite. Purnell and Layton subtly bring out the similarities in their situations, Purnell in particular taking advantage of the script to emphasize the humanity and pain of her character. Kennedy always does warm and elegant well, and here we’re deliberately not sure if she’s concerned or just nosey. Pay particular attention to Butz’ Mr. Marks, with incredible body language in his portrayal, miniscule gestures and timing that show us what he’s thinking – or perhaps deciding what not to think.
Gary Wayne Barker has brought it all together, including some excellent tech work. Peter and Margery Spack’s set, great swathes of fabric for the story of the seamstress, is deeply imaginative, enhanced by lighting design from Sean Savoie. Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes, with work from Craig Jones and Eliana Eshel, are a pleasure to behold, with lots of Victorian-era lingerie. Christopher Sifford designed the billowy confections that are the wigs. And Amanda Werre’s sound design, including music that contributes a lot, can’t be ignored.
A remarkable evening of theatre in, if you’ll excuse the adjective, an intimate space.
through February 12
The New Jewish Theatre
The Wool Family Studio
Jewish Community Center Staenberg Family Complex
2 Millstone Campus Drive, Creve Coeur
The Hi-Pointe Drive-In has opened to lots of traffic. Located where Naugles of blessed memory was, on McCausland, just south of the movie theater of the same name, and run by the Sugarfire Smokehouse gang, it has been an immediate Hot Spot. No, there’s no drive-through. And there are certainly no car-hops, which is what drive-ins were really all about back in the day.
A 9 p.m. visit (and a parking place) gave me a first look. And a good sandwich. The grilled salmon banh mi turned out to be a tasty, if rather messy, choice.
The salmon is grilled to order, and layered on a bun from Fazio’s. It’s not the traditional French bread (which in Vietnam is more like the New Orleans version of French bread, crisp outside, tender inside), but that does make it a little easier to eat. The greens are lettuce and cilantro, the pickled vegetables are housemade, and radishes add crunch. Love the mango-chili mayonnaise, a little kick and occasionally a slightly bigger push of heat. It’s just hard to eat without the sandwich disassembling itself as gravity takes its immense toll. The only possible option besides using a fork is to cut it in half and use one’s hands as a wall against the ingredients. Just don’t expect the same flavor profile as one finds in the banh mi from a Vietnamese restaurant.
Bonus bite: The fries are fresh and full of potato flavor. If you’re looking for fries that are all very crisp, that’s not these, but of their kind they’re excellent.
Lunch and Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Sandwiches, etc.: $6-$11
It covers several rooms at the Chase Park Plaza, from the Khorassan Room up to the Starlight Roof. I know from previous years’ visits that this can be a place for some very serious wines, which are available with higher-level tickets, so oenophiles should pay particularly close attention.
As to the food, this is a great place to try some new things and be reminded of some old ones. The basic tickets begin at $40 – and designated drivers, who don’t get the wine glass that comes with the tickets, can do it for $25.
Details and tickets at http://foodandwinestl.org/.
There’s more ferment afoot on St. Louis stages. Theatre Nuevo is bringing us Hell. Not literally, of course. (And I promise not to make any ill-tempered remarks using that as a theme for reviewing.)
Hell, the performance, is a combination of dance and skits on the obvious subject. It’s intimate in the venue of The Chapel, and interesting. Alas, like nearly everything done there, some of the dialogue is swallowed up in the high rafters, despite the fact that a performer could well be a mere five feet away. When the acoustics are combined with a performer who has to face only half the audience are dispersed on either side of the chapel’s nave, something literally gets lost.
Five performers and five musicians join forces in this. There are no credits for who’s actually responsible for the concept and dialogue, which turns out to be an accidental omission. Anna Skidis Vargas, the company’s artistic director and Hell’s director, explained that the whole company created the work.
That all sounds Serious. Fortunately, while the choreography is pretty close to serious, it’s also intriguing. And the skits, which comprise most of the evening, are generally quite fun, despite dealing with Big Issues. (Elisabeth Kubler-Ross might not be quite on board with everything, but….) The two folks who work in orientation at Hades are Elizabeth Van Pelt and Rahamses Galvan, occasionally removing their horns to cover other roles. Kevin Corpuz, La’Brie Jones and Amanda Wales are the new arrivals, whom we see both going and coming, so to speak.
The choreography is from Geoffrey Alexander. Special mention goes to Charlie Mueller’s music. He also plays the piano and leads the musical group of guitar (Logan Furey), drums (Dustin Allison) and cello, an unexpected but welcome addition (Michaela Kuba). Marshall Jennings is the particularly excellent vocalist. Costumes from Marcy Wiegert are amusing, and the set design by Max Viau has some eye-catching details.
Experimental theater is certainly on the rise in town. You could do much worse than spending a little over an hour (no intermission) with Theatre Nuevo dancing with the devils.
through January 29
6238 Alexander Dr.
Constellations opened at the Rep Studio this weekend. It may not be for everyone but much of it is fascinating.
Theater has had pick-your-ending plays for quite a while. Constellations offers a variety of things that could happen over a story arc, from beginning to end. There’s no choosing on the part of the audience, just variations flashing by. This all began with author Nick Payne’s thinking about quantum multiverses, something that takes the idea of multiple universes and rearranges it, sort of. (For a better explanation, try this link.) And then he decided to introduce an astrophysicist to a beekeeper. Infinite universes vs. small contained ones, so to speak.
It’s a love story that takes place in London. She’s the astrophysicist and he’s a freelance beekeeper and honey seller. They are Ellen Adair and Eric Gilde, in a pas de deux of very impressive portions. One scene is so strong that it’s done solely in sign language. It’s not giving away a great deal to say that she becomes seriously ill, and the scenes involving that are particularly well rendered by both Adair and Gilde. Whether or not one agrees with Payne’s approach to the construction of the play, his characters’ handling of the situation via his dialogue is impressively spot-on realistic.
A deceptively simple set from Bill Clarke is quite wonderful, and Rusty Wandall’s sound design and original music is noticeably excellent. Steven Woolf directed Constellations, and overall got it just right. Just right.
Prepare to perhaps be confused by the presentation of the story, which gives several versions of each scene, and shifts back and forth in time. But prepare also for some excellent work.
One act, no intermission.
through February 5
The Studio at Repertory Theatre St. Louis
Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts
130 Edgar Rd., Webster Groves
Ah, romance. There’s plenty of it right now at the Fox Theatre. The current run of An American in Paris goes through January 29. Based on the mid-century film that was inspired by Gershwin’s 1928 orchestral composition of the same name, it’s about art and love and loss. Those Gershwin sounds that are pretty irresistible. Younger theater-goers may recognize many of them if they listen to jazz, where they’ve become jazz standards to be riffed and enlarged on, but never losing the essential tunefulness and emotion that are so intrinsic.
It’s the time just after World War II when American artists, both visual and performing, were returning to Paris, or, in some cases, staying after their discharge from the military. The latter is the situation with our main character, Jerry Mulligan – no relation, apparently, to the jazz saxophonist of the near-identical name – who’s a painter. He runs into Adam, an American composer-musician in a little cafe and they strike up a friendship. The third musketeer is Henri, a local, who really wants to be a singer instead of running his family’s factory. He’s the only one of the three who has a steady income; the two Yanks are earning their living by – well, if not the seat of their pants, the tips of their fingers with painting and playing piano. Henri’s also the only one with a girlfriend, unmet by the other two, to whom he’s trying to propose.
Is that a setup? Of course. Jerry has kept seeing in passing, even before his military discharge, this very mysterious young woman he hasn’t been able to meet. And Adam runs into a lovely dancer when he’s playing for a ballet company’s rehearsal.
Because this is a dance show. The leads in the movie were Gene Kelly, who did the choreography for the film, and Leslie Caron, both dancers who turned out to be fine actors. (It was Caron’s film debut; Kelly had found her in a Roland Petit corps de Ballet.)
Gershwin music, always a good thing, and a real orchestra, not a bunch of electronics. A modern script, a fairly good thing. And two first-rate leads, Garen Scribner as Jerry and Sara Esty as Lise, the girl – who, of course, is the objet d’passion of all three men. Please note that Jerry will be played at all matinees but the final one by Ryan Steele, and Lise on Sunday and Thursday evenings by Leigh-Ann Esty, Sara’s twin. Both leads that I saw dance, act and sing with passion; the show’s in good hands with them.
Special notice also should go to Etai Benson, who played Adam Hochberg, the piano guy, warm and charming. He should have gotten the girl. And there’s Emily Ferrante’s Milo Davenport, rich American patron of the arts. And of artists, it turns out, but Ferrante’s Milo’s not quite as tough as she thinks she is. Nick Spangler is Henri, who must want to be Maurice Chevalier; he adds a third voice to the other musketeers in several numbers, and the results are absolutely delicious. He’s also very fine in “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” with Scribner and the company. Enjoy, as well, a more obscure number that I’d never heard or heard of before, “Fidgety Feet”, which was great fun.
The backdrop to the show, an electronic screen with some projections is a swell actualization of what this technology can do in theatre, a setting appearing as though it’s being drawn in a setting that seems a dream realized to the characters of the play, for instance. My single serious complaint is the lack of synchronization in many dance numbers early in the show. It doesn’t happen in numbers involving tap shoes, thank goodness, but there are times when the back row and the front row or the right and the left halves of the stage are visibly out of step with each other. One sees this more and more frequently on stage, not just in this show. Perhaps that’s just the spirit of the times or of dance captains. But it looks unprofessional. I suspect it wouldn’t have been happening when Gershwin was alive – too many unemployed dancers waiting to take the place of the out-of-sync.
Still, a yummy show of this sort.
An American in Paris
through January 29
527 N. Grand
Olive and Oak was hopping when we arrived a few minutes early for a late dinner reservation. It’s always heartening to see a dining room, especially in the suburbs, moving and grooving at an hour when most are winding down. Staying up late to dine is far less common now than it was, say, when television was newish and its only late night alternatives were Jack Paar or the movie after the 10 o’clock news – which ran 15 minutes in those days.
So there we were, enjoying the busy room – plenty of plants but not at all resembling a fern bar of the Seventies, very pleasant. It was about the right time for a table turn.
But we ran into two problems. One wasn’t the restaurant’s fault. The other? Well, you’ll see.
We needed more than a four-top. And therein was the rub. The people at the six-top we were scheduled for weren’t moving. They were camping out at the table. They had the check. They just weren’t leaving. There was no room at the bar to usher them there; it was busy and all the high-topped tables and the counters were occupado. And there were no other seating arrangements that could be juggled at that point. The owner working the front of the house was very apologetic. The hostesses were disconsolate. Even the servers were sorry. But the group didn’t move.
We were finally seated 50 minutes after our reservation time. Very few local restaurants figure that a party will occupy a table for three hours. Some leisurely-paced white-tablecloth spots may, but even then I suspect the working figure will be two and a half hours. I hope that party tipped very well indeed.
There wasn’t anything the restaurant could have done. One certainly doesn’t expect the management to throw them out. We were assured the kitchen were preparing an appetizer for us that would be ready the moment we sat down, not at our request but as an offering from the management.
But sit we did, and I must say the appetizer and its companions, also gratis, were good. The crab gratin was remarkable, a little heat (Calabrian chile, says the menu) alongside the celery notes that remind one of Old Bay Seasoning, the creamy, thick mixture warm and dippable with the batons of pretzel bread and some celery sticks, which were also warmed. Smoked turkey meatballs, tender and not at all dry, were in an agrodulce sauce over a little creamy polenta. The house bread, sourdough with some whole wheat flour, charmed, the accompanying butter slightly sweet. The bread did yeoman work of wiping up the garlicky butter under crumbs that topped some baked shrimp.
The Dip, a lamb sandwich on a crusty roll, held slices of well-done leg of lamb, accompanied by a bowl of jus in which to dip the sandwich. The meat was tender, and the flavor fine – it would be a good introduction to lamb for those new to it. A small slice of the Spanish cheese that translates as drunken goat was under the meat. Fries alongside were pretty good, with some subtle, unidentifiable seasoning, which hit my tongue, but not one of my pal’s, as slightly sweet, creating a light crusting on the potato.
Two of us decided to order one of the two entrees-for-two, the other being the 32-ounce prime “cowboy steak”, which is a ribeye. Our choice was the Dover sole, which came with a mushroom risotto. Four boneless fillets, the fish having been deboned and skinned in the kitchen, lay atop the platter of risotto. While the fish was properly cooked and the risotto a real risotto – which is to say it wasn’t pre-cooked rice that had been stirred into a sauce, something that still happens around town occasionally, there were problems with the dish. The garnish, chopped black olives, overwhelmed the delicate taste of the fish. The risotto was oozing olive oil and some liquid. And the entire dish was barely above room temperature, even the risotto, which is a dish that, if anything, tends to hold the heat too well. (It’s why Italians traditionally eat it around the edges, to allow it cool.) The mushroom-y risotto tasted fine, but overall the dish lacked the feeling of indulgence that both Dover sole and risotto should produce in the diner.
The temperature maladjustment continued with a glass of cava, which was barely cold, although a pinot noir was nicely cellar temp. Perhaps they had been stored together.
Dessert? Whoever thought of brulee-ing rice pudding? It’s a good idea, especially with the rice cooked with chai spices, a nicely comfort food-ish piece of work that rises well above the cliché.
Our server worked hard to keep things moving – it certainly isn’t the servers’ fault for the delay in being seated, the cold fish and the warm wine. Those flubs make their jobs harder because diners are disgruntled.
This is a good-looking menu, and many people are clearly very happy about the restaurant. But they’ve been open for around a year, and glitches like these should have been worked out long ago. We appreciate their apologies and efforts to make things right – and diners should be aware of their own camping out – but it made for an unsuccessful evening overall.
Olive + Oak
102 W. Lockwood Ave., Webster Groves
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Entrees and sandwiches: $12-$30
Mixing the arts together is always an interesting idea, and mostly it’s a good one. Opera Theatre of St. Louis is indulging in just that with a series of get-togethers at venues throughout the area, mixing food, drink and music.
It’s not quite “dinner and a show”, but almost. It’s (probably heavy) appetizers and some beverages, plus four young singers with work that ranges across the history of opera. And the price is very reasonable, from $20 to $25 a head. The gatherings begin January 25 and run through the following Monday. And as for the venues - well, here's your chance to mix it up and hear opera in the National Blues Museum, for one site.
Five nights, four venues, and varying times. More details here.
No singing, no dancing, just story and actors, plus some fine tech work, mark Repertory Theatre St. Louis’ remarkable current offering. It was the breakthrough play for Arthur Miller’s career, beating out The Iceman Cometh for a Tony in its 1947 debut. Like so much of Miller’s work, it talks about crumbling families and the crumbling of the American Dream.
So, yes, it’s no comedy. It’s set in 1947 at the home of Joe Keller, a factory owner. One son was MIA in the war; the surviving one, Chris, who also served, works with his father. The son has fallen in love with his brother’s girlfriend Ann, who once lived next door. This presents two problems, though. One is that the boys’ mother believes that the son is still alive.
The other is more complicated. The girl’s father, once a partner at the factory, is in jail for selling shoddy airplane engines to the government during the war. Both men, in fact, were jailed for that, but Joe’s conviction was overturned on appeal, he came home and resumed work. (Missouri connection here: The Senate committee that actually investigated such things and did yeoman work was headed by our own Harry S Truman. It probably got him the vice-presidential nomination and we know what happened after that. Miller said he based the play on a newspaper clipping about a real case from that committee.) Ann believes her father to be guilty and both she and her brother George have cut off all contact with him.
John Woodson is Joe Keller, a carefully, yea, exquisitely underplayed role of the pater familias. He’d do anything for his boys. Margaret Daly, Joe’s wife, Kate, is clearly sure that her son is alive and it drives her. Daly’s sweet mom is almost Jane Wyatt-esque in her serenity; her zingers might pass unnoticed, but not in Daly’s portrayal.
Patrick Ball’s Chris, the surviving son, is splendid. His work with Ann, Mairin Lee, is particularly good, and the two of them exquisitely portray a couple who have waited for each other for a long time. That’s not to say that Lee’s role is a purely supporting one – she has her own painful push and pull with which to deal.
Among the supporting cast, a tip of the hat to Jim Ireland, who plays the doctor next door. His Dr. Bayliss is an interesting mix of idealism and sarcasm. And another nod in the direction of Ana Mc Alister, who plays Bert, a young one from nearby who’s absolutely delightful – and quite audible, thank you, not always the case with relative newcomers to the stage.
The Rep’s associate artistic director Seth Gordon directed this excellent piece of work. It’s a wonderful set from Michael Ganio, and Peter Sargent’s lighting showcases the actors as well as the set perfectly. And was that Benny Goodman that sound designer Rusty Wandall gave us to start things off? Perfect.
A crackerjack piece of work that builds to an emotional close, with complex characters and their questions.
All My Sons
through January 29
Repertory Theatre St. Louis
Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts
130 Edgar Rd., Webster Groves
You might as well laugh about it.
That’s the idea with Menopause The Musical, which has returned to the Playhouse at Westport. About 10 years ago, it was done there, and they’ve re-assembled the cast from that iteration of the show. MTM began in Orlando, and has been done all over the world, including long runs in Las Vegas and Madrid, Spain.
The cast is strong, all local actors who show off their comedy chops, dancing talent, and voices to good advantage. First among equals may well be Marty K. Casey, as the Professional Woman. She sounds absolutely great, starting with “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”. Lee Anne Mathews plays the Soap Star, with a killer version of “Heat Wave”, changed to “Hot Flash”. Laura Ackermann is the old hippie Earth Mother, who charms in “Puff, My God, I’m Dragging.” The Iowa Housewife, Rosemary Watts, brings down the house in a hysterical version of “Only You”. And there’s more, lots more.
All the songs are parodies of the music that many of us heard growing up, which makes for even more fun, and the sound system, which began with Steve Shapiro, hits the right spot so the laughter doesn’t drown out the new (and far more relevant) lyrics. A delightful Art Deco set from Bud Clark is an integral part of the action.
I’m sure there are arguments that this is sexist, that it’s tasteless, and more. Those same arguments can be made about much of theatre. Who will enjoy this, beyond women of what the call un age certain? People of both genders around them unless they have no sense of humor. That includes family, friends and co-workers. One of life’s cruel jokes is that the menopause hits many households about the same time adolescence does. Here’s something to tide us over.
Good work from all four actors, who knock themselves out for the 90-minute no-intermission performance. It’s a lot of fun.
Menopause The Musical
through February 12, 2017
Playhouse at Westport
635 Westport Plaza
Is Singapore one of the great eating cities of the world?
Quite possibly. I spent some time there in early December. Less than 90 miles from the equator, it was quite warm, of course, hitting around 90 most days but with far less humidity than I remembered from a visit years ago. But I wasn’t there for the weather. I was there for the food.
There are plenty of food tours offered through places like Viator and TripAdvisor, but I was lucky enough to have a Chowzter buddy who’s a native Singaporean. Juliana gave me pointers and sometimes shepherd me around. Singapore is such a mixture of cultures that the eating possibilities are immense; there were plenty of things I wanted to try but didn’t manage. Much of what I’m talking about here are foods out of their multicultural traditions, which means that everyone’s grandmother made them differently. That means that the arguments are endless over what constitutes The Best, of course, but with the ever-keen Juliana keeping me up to date, I had a great time.
The best dish of the entire trip may well have been a bowl of laksa. I wrote to my daughter, the first Apprentice Eater, after having this, “I’ve eaten fish soups from above the Arctic Circle to near the equator, and I can honestly say this one was mind-blowing.” Laksa uses a coconut-seafood broth, shrimp, rice noodles and varying mysterious seasonings, including things like galangal and dried shrimp. It’s apparently often quite spicy, but one of the nice things about the laksa I had was that the chili paste was politely smeared on the lip of the bowl so as much or little of it could be nudged into the liquid. I like things really spicy, but the small dab I added after my first bites was just enough that I could still revel in the wondrousness of that broth. Laksa is available in many places – the lunch buffet at my hotel had it, for instance – but you’re better off trying it in one of the spots more patronized by locals. They argue about which version is correct the way Americans argue about barbecue, so don’t be surprised by what you find on the internet. Juliana urged me to go to a place quite a distance from the center of town, six or seven miles,. But cabs are cheap and Uber even cheaper. I paid about $4 for the laksa and a cold drink, less than the one-way fare, but it would have been worth five times the price. It’s in a shopping mall, not the fancy Western kind but a building that holds many small businesses. Go in the ground-level door, and it’s almost immediately to your right. Order, pick your drink and pay at the counter. There’s at least one other location for this particular outfit, by the way.
The Original Katong Laksa
50 East Coast Rd.#01-64, Singapore
Daily 8.30 a.m. - 5.30 p.m.
The many of the variations of chicken and rice have, over the years, come to be favorites of mine. I’d heard about Singapore’s Hainanese chicken and rice, but the one version I’d tried was disappointingly wan. I suspected the problem was that version, which turned out to be correct. Juliana took me to Zion Road Hawker Centre for my first lunch, and that was what I had – or, more accurately, part of what I had.
White meat of chicken is poached in a broth that’s strengthened by dozens, probably hundreds, of pieces of chicken that have been poached in it before, the liquid seasoned with ginger, garlic, and, often, pandan leaves. Some of that liquid is used to prepare the rice. It’s served with a dipping sauce of seasoned dark soy sauce. If I hadn’t had lots of other things about to arrive at the table, I could have made a pig of myself on this. It’s a good dish for those hesitant about digging into the local cuisine. Juliana got it from Boon Tong Kee, which has several sites throughout Singapore.
A few tips on dining at hawker centres, which are like the old Miss Hullings’ Seven Kitchen concept gone wild – lots of small vendors cluster around picnic tables. Find a place to sit and hold your place with a packet of Kleenex or an umbrella or something. This is Singapore; the spot will be respected and your belongings will be safe. Wet-wipes are helpful to have, as well as tissues; napkins seem in short supply. This is a good idea throughout southeast Asia, although sanitation in Singapore is generally impeccable. You may have to share a table. Look for stands that have a line – this means the locals think the food is tasty, and there’s a rapid turnover of food. Usually there is someone who’s bussing the tables, but look around to see what locals do. The hardest part will be deciding what to eat.
Another well-known dish is chilli crab. Again, lots of arguments about which is best; I ended up at a spot on Robertson Quay, near my hotel, called the Red Box The dish varies in pungency from restaurant to restaurant; theirs is not wildly hot and in fact, the sauce has a little sweetness to it. Mantou are rolls designed to sop up the sauce, a wise addition. The crab these days is imported, and it’s not an inexpensive meal – my check for the crab and a beer was around $65 American, a decided contrast with the laksa and any hawker centre food.
For upscale Chinese, I had a delightful dinner with Julianna, her husband Guillaume, who’s French (and a chef with two Michelin stars), and another friend, at his favorite Chinese restaurant, Jade Palace. It’s inside a very nice shopping center, much more upscale than the one holding the laksa place, on the big, almost Rodeo Drive-like Orchard Road. Razor clams? Foie gras? Pigeon? Yes, in a Chinese restaurant. Wonderful, and a very good wine list.
For something authentic, non-touristy but only a little exotic, think about a kopi shop, a coffee shop. Kopi is coffee that comes with condensed milk, hot, milky and sweet, not unlike the Vietnamese coffee many of us order over ice. There are other ways to order coffee – here’s a chart, if you’re interested. The traditional accompaniment to the coffee is kaya toast. It’s a sandwich of toasted bread, often crustless, that contains kaya, often described as coconut jam. It’s actually more of a curd – think lemon curd in terms of consistency and method of preparation – but that’s quibbling. One piece of the toast has a slice of cold butter on it, the other is spread with kaya. Some folks like the butter melty, others praise the contrast between the cold, firm butter and the ooze of the kaya. Many people have a soft- or semi-soft-boiled egg with it, using the bread to wipe up egg yolk. Definitely worth investigating. There are kopi shops all over, even chains that are shiny-bright and perhaps less intimidating for the rookie, like the one where I took this picture.
That should do for a kickoff. More adventures in other parts of Southeast Asia sooner or later.
How delightful to find a pizza place that treats salads as more than a sop to the conscience. After three weeks of pretty much nothing but Asian food, I was ready for pizza, and led a raid on PW Pizza.
I do think the building, which holds Vin de Set and 21st St. Brewers Bar as well as event spaces Moulin and The Malt House Cellar is a pleasure. PW is on the ground floor, and there’s parking just outside the entrance, which is on the east side of the building. Rustic, and in the case of PW, very casual and family-friendly, the whole shebang is a great re-use of an old space.
The two salads we had were large and gorgeous, not overdressed (hurray) and clearly tossed to order. My favorite was the BLT, romaine lettuce, bacon, diced fresh tomato and blue cheese with a light ranch dressing. The bacon was generously portioned, the lettuce crisp and cold. And the tomato – well, hey, it’s January. Fresh tomato is nearly always a polite gesture rather than anything satisfying this time of year. Red onion, pepperoni and pepperoncini studded the greens of the house salad, which was crowned with pieces of parmesan cheese. What’s called “Dad’s vinaigrette” is a sweet one, but at least the sugariness is under pretty good control, making it truly sweet-and-sour rather than some of the cloying versions around town. These were ordered as small salads, and what arrived were 6-inch plates mounded high with the food.
PW is a provel-free zone. Plenty of other cheeses hang out in the kitchen – there are ten listed on the make-your-own section of the menu. Unfortunately, it’s also an anchovy-free zone. I wonder what would happen if someone pulled a tin of the lovely salty little fish fillets out of a pocket and made a request…. On the other hand, they proudly serve Volpi salami, along with their other options.
This is a crust of middle thickness, a single 12” size available and three doughs from which to choose. The crust is tender rather than crisp, a little chewy but not remarkably so. One pie of ours showed off fresh mushrooms and some nice housemade sausage laced with fennel.
The other was burdened with one of those names it’s hard to repeat aloud without coming near to giggling. Shrimpy shrimpy bang bang was the handle. Shrimp, bacon, jalapenos, mozzarella, monterey jack and, unusual for an American pizza, corn were the toppings. (Corn’s not uncommon on pizzas in Europe – although goodness knows, not in Italy.) There was an avocado-cilantro sauce drizzled over the top. Unfortunately, all this added up to not enough. On the entire pizza, there appeared to be no more than three small pieces of jalapeno. Fire-eaters should take advantage of the sriracha sauce offered. It was also skimpy with the pieces of shrimp, perhaps a half-dozen pieces. The corn adds nothing but a slightly different texture, and the drizzle is more about avocado than cilantro. Interestingly, this is another of those dishes that was better the next day, cold from the refrigerator, when it was rather comfort food-ish, than it was hot out of the oven.
Peanut butter pie is on the dessert menu, fluffy and enjoying the chocolate ganache drizzled on and in it. Extra points for the crust, which stayed relatively crunchy and seemed to actually have some salt in it to make it even more peanut butter-y.
Sandwiches and calzones as well as pizze, and a white chili that’s popular this time of year. Yes, beer, natch, and some wine. Noisy when it’s busy; we can just imagine what it’s like on hockey nights.
2017 Chouteau Ave.
Lunch and dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
One of the first times I ever ate brunch was a New Year's Day - it was at the Chase Park Plaza, in what was then, I believe, the Hunt Room. I was amazed that there were enough people interested in brunch after the annual late-nighter that the hotel had gone for it. (I was young - while I wasn't a heavy partier, I assumed pretty much the rest of the world was.)
Atomic Cowboy is doing brunch New Year's Day, and every Sunday. I wrote about it as part of the Tour de Toast series at St. Louis Magazine's Dining blog. I'm not sure how quiet it will be this New Year's Day. But there's plenty of the sort of food that helps metabolize the leftovers from too much ethanol having been imbibed.
To begin with, let us make perfectly clear that The Book of Moron is not a parody of The Book of Mormon. Currently running at the Playhouse at Westport Plaza through New Year’s Day, and performed by its creator Robert Dubac, the subtitle is If Thinking Were Easy Everyone Would Do It.
Moron is a one-man show that runs about 90 minutes. It’s certainly scripted, but I was reminded of the sort of standup comedy that began in the Sixties, Mort Sahl mixed with Lenny Bruce, with some pre-sitcom Bob Newhart thrown in. If that rings no bells with you, think about the opening monologue from one of the more edgy late-night hosts. (I’m looking at you, Steven Colbert.)
There’s a loose story line as Dubac portrays the various voices we all hear inside our heads, but mostly this is a series of observations on life and, to a lesser degree, current events. He’s very funny, funny enough that the audience didn’t take much, if any, time to warm up. The humor is particularly notable in that some of it is simple, either in verbal or physical terms, and other parts of it are relatively intellectual – jokes about four-syllable words, anyone? Adult language flies by occasionally.
2016 has certainly been a year when we all need a good laugh. Here’s a chance for an hour and a half of them, and surprisingly worthwhile. Move quickly – this closes New Years Day, but there are two shows on New Years Eve.
The Book of Moron
Playhouse at Westport Plaza